Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2008 Issue

The Government Faces Off Against a Collector for a Declaration of Independence

Wiscasset

Turn of the Century Wiscasset, from the period when the Declaration was in the home of Town Clerk Sol Holbrook.


By Michael Stillman

Another case involving "lost" public documents is playing out in a Virginia court, the type of case we both hate to see and expect to see more of in the days ahead. It pits a public authority against an innocent collector, the latter standing to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of a purchase made in good faith. There must be a better way.

The item is a copy of the Declaration of Independence, not the first printing, but a very early one, from 1776. It was printed in Salem, Massachusetts, and apparently went to the Town of Pownalborough in what was then northern Massachusetts. The town is today known as Wiscasset and what was then northern Massachusetts is now known as Maine. Somewhere along the way, as Massachusetts lost Pownalborough and Pownalborough lost its name, Wiscasset lost its copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Today it is in the possession of Richard L. Adams of Virginia. Obviously, he believes he is the owner. He would not have paid $475,000 to borrow it for a few months. Exactly what happened to it between 1776 and 2008 is not certain, but here is what appears to have occurred over the last hundred years or so. It apparently was held by Sol Holbrook, a watchmaker by trade who was Wiscasset's Town Clerk from 1886-1929. It may sound odd, even questionable, that a town clerk would have had important public papers in his home, but those of us who have lived in small town New England will not be surprised at all. These towns would have had few, if any, public facilities, and no place to store the reams of public papers that accumulated over a century and a half. The one person who would be most likely to ever need any of these records would be the Town Clerk, so it is quite natural that they would end up in his house. And, while there might be some call for town minutes or the like from the past decade or so, the need to access records from the distant past would be negligible if not totally nonexistent. Most likely, the records, which included this Declaration of Independence, made their way to Holbrook's attic quite early in his town clerking career, and never saw the light of day again.

After Holbrook died, no one came to reclaim the records for the town. It is likely after all of those years no one knew what he had, and no one cared. So the records ended up in the attic of Holbrook's daughter, Anna Plumstead. It's doubtful either she or her father ever had any idea there was something valuable in there. When she died in 1994, her belongings were put up for auction, and that was when it became clear there was something of value. At that 1995 estate auction, it sold for $77,000. Since then, it has gone through a couple of private sales, at one time being held by London bookseller Simon Finch, before making its way to Adams. Now, Adams wants to sell it, and the State of Maine, which somehow missed the auction in Maine in which it was sold, has hightailed it down to Virginia to seize the copy.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.

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